Arctic Blog - Journey to Greenland and Canadian High Arctic - Part One
Up to now, every one of my blogs has described journeys aboard Venture. This one will be different because there are some destinations – eg, places where the sea turns solid – when a different sort of vessel is necessary. I recently returned from a journey to Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic and, in the hope that fellow Fleming owners might find such a journey of interest, I decided to a brief account with photos in this blogosphere.
As this is primarily a blog for boaters, I will start by describing the vessel which took myself and others on this memorable journey. She is the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov built in Helsinki in 1981.
Her vital statistics are as follows:
Length: 134.2 meters (440 ft). Beam, 26.75 m (88ft ), Draft 8.5m (28 ft)
Displacement 15,000 tons. Range 10,500 nm at 16 kts.
Diesel electric propulsion using six Wartsila-Sulzer engines driving 6 AC generators developing a total of 24,900 hp. Normal operation uses three engines giving speed of 13.5 knots burning 30 – 35 tonnes of fuel per day.
Three shafts each with four bladed props 4.3m (14ft) diameter. Blades can be replaced at sea. Single rudder with ice-horn for protection.
Each shaft driven by two 1000 hp DC motors capable of going from full forward to full astern in 20 seconds.
Double hull 45mm (1.77”) thick at ice skirt and between 1” - 1.5” elsewhere.
Space between the hulls is sectioned for ballast tanks, between which water can be transferred at 75 tonnes per minute for rocking ship.
Notched stern with massive winch and shock absorber for close-quarters towing.
Two six tonne anchors each with 300m (985 ft) of chain. One spare anchor on deck.
Compressors provide 32 cubic meters of air per second for air curtain to reduce friction of ice against hull sides.
I tried to find out how many miles the Kapitan Khlebikov has covered since she was built but there was no figures readily available. However, below is a list of the voyages she has taken with passengers aboard. In addition must be counted the thousands of miles accumulated while she was engaged in normal commercial ice-breaking plus those needed to get her to and from the polar regions from her base in Vladivostok. This must run into the hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of nautical miles.
18 transits of the Northwest passage
3 transits of the Northeast passage
12 Antarctic summers including:
2 circumnavigations of Antarctica
10 partial circumnavigations of Antarctica
8 Ross Sea voyages16 Snow Hill Island voyages
4 Weddell Sea voyages
3 Amery Ice shelf voyages.
On this voyage in 2016, the Kapitan Khlebnikov left Vladivostok around July 1st and took passengers on board in Anadya, in northeast Siberia, a few days later. She is due back in Anadya on September 22nd after circumnavigated the world by way of the Northeast Passage (north of Siberia) and the Northwest Passage. From there she will return to Vladivostok - having taken three months for the round trip. I joined the ship in Kangerlussuaq in Southwest Greenland and was aboard for the journey to Tanquary Fjord on Ellesmere Island before disembarking at Resolute in the Canadian High Arctic. Our maximum north latitude was 81.4 degrees – about 450 miles from the North Pole. This blog covers the Greenland segment. A second blog will cover the Canadian High Arctic. In due course there will be a video covering my entire journey.
August 23rd Tuesday. Kangerlussuaq.
Along with the other passengers joining the ship, I take a charter flight from Ottawa to Kangerlussuaq in Greenland. Flight time is 3 hrs 30 minutes and there is a two hour time change. After simple customs and immigration procedures we are taken over a rough road by bus from the airport to the point of embarkation for Zodiacs to the ship which is anchored out at head of 90 mile long Sondre Stromfjord. Kangerlussuaq is located a few miles north of the Arctic Circle and was previously an important US base. We are able to climb aboard the Zodiacs without getting wet which is lucky because we don’t yet have our boots. Once aboard we attend a mandatory briefing which includes the importance of always using the sailors wrist grip rather than just taking a person’s hand in your own. (We always use this type of grip aboard Venture and it should always be used when assisting another person on or off a boat – or, indeed, anywhere a bit dodgy.) We are issued with our boots and robust, yellow Arctic jackets and are organized into groups which will be used to optimize Zodiac and helicopter excursions. We attend a mandatory lifeboat drill after which the ship gets underway and we enjoy a delicious dinner with open seating in a choice of two dining rooms and the lounge.
August 24th Wednesday. Sisimiut.
Good to be underway. We feel some rolling as ship exits the long fjord and turns north. I arise at 0700 and, after a light breakfast, climb to the flying bridge to watch the ship dock in Sisimiut which is 75 miles north of Arctic Circle and Greenland’s second largest town (after the capital Nuuk). The site has been occupied for 4,500 years and was settled by the Dutch in 1720 although whalers had been coming here earlier than this. The Danes took over in 1739. This will be the only port on the entire trip where the ship can come alongside and we can walk ashore. We take on 700 tonnes of fuel at 60 tonnes per hour. I stroll to the top of hill overlooking the town then clamber down a series of wooden steps meandering between the colourful houses to the harbour packed with equally colourful fishing boats. Back on board we watch a local kayaker demonstrating roll-overs and recovery from capsize of these fragile craft.
August 25th. Thursday. Ilulissat.
Relocating overnight, the Kapitan Khlebnikov anchors off Greenland’s third largest town with a population of around 4,800 people and 2,800 sled dogs. The site has been inhabited for around 4,000 years and a Norwegian ministry arrived about 1737. Ilulissat is situated on the 40 km (25 mile) long Kangerlua Icefjord which generates 20 million tons of ice per DAY. This is equivalent to the total volume of water consumed by New York city in an entire YEAR! It is the most productive glacier in Northern Hemisphere and produces icebergs the size of small towns that ground at mouth of the fjord. This is the area featured on the You Tube video titled ‘“CHASING ICE” which captures the greatest glacial carving ever filmed”. Direct link – if it works – is: https://youtu.be/hC3VTgIPoGU. If you haven’t already watched this video, you MUST because it is the most incredible sight.
In the morning we go for a Zodiac excursion amongst a flotilla of immense icebergs. Care is needed not to get too close because they can capsize without warning and unsuspected massive tongues of ice can suddenly erupt from beneath the water. A pod of humpback whales are cruising and resting on the surface. Restricted to using strictly traditional equipment and methods, local Inuit are permitted to hunt 10 humpbacks per year – up from 9.
After lunch on board, we are run ashore in the Zodiacs into a harbour crowded with small vessels mixed in with sizeable ice floes. Lulled by what was described as an easy walk - similar to the one we had experienced in Sismiut - we endure what turns out to be an arduous uphill marathon to the start of a serpentine (Folder - boardwalk leading to the margins of the Icefjord. When I realize that the boardwalk ultimately descends back down to sea level, the prospect of repeating the uphill climb is more than I can face so I turn around - but not until after I have seen - and been astonished by - the sight of stunning quantities of ice choking the River of Ice. Colourful vegetation sprawls over the rocky terrain.
This beauty has a sinister side because it is evidence of the rate at which ice is being lost from the Greenland icecap which covers 80% of the country. The icecap is subject to an enormous amount of ongoing, in-depth, research from which the current estimate of annual loss of ice is estimated at 269 billion tonnes. The world-wide implications are enormous and anyone who denies this is happening is deluding themselves. Minimum sea ice in the Arctic is generally expected at September 10th each year. 2016 has the second lowest amount of sea ice on record and the rate of loss is accelerating.
Along the route leading to and from the boardwalk, we see many sled dogs each moored to a chain. Their time is coming as winter is just around the corner. Some are sleeping curled into a ball with black noses tucked under their furry tails. Others are alert and curious about the passing strangers. But these are serious working dogs and not pets so we are warned to be cautious when approaching them. ie Don’t do it!
August 26th Friday. Uummannaq
I arise at 0530 which is a bit late to catch the dawn as the sun is already above the horizon. We are still underway and I spot a remote village (name unknown) huddled at the base of huge mountains with icebergs floating just offshore. Shortly after, we arrive at Uummannaq where the harbour is mirror calm and reflects the beautiful icebergs surrounding the ship. It is hard to stop taking photos. The town is dominated by a mountain 1450 m (4,760 ft) high and its name translates as “heart-shaped”. Ummannaq is at 70 degrees north and is 600km (375 miles) north of the Arctic Circle. It was founded by the Danes in 1763 and has a population of approximately 1300. I go ashore by Zodiac after a nice breakfast of bacon and eggs and we enjoy a rare dry landing – scrambling over the bow onto a crowded floating pontoon. I tour the town taking photos which include pallets of Macintosh “Quality Street” chocolates and toffees. These are a favourite Christmas treat in Britain and it is quite a surprise to see them stacked on the dock in such quantities in this remote place.
After lunch the ship is relocated further inland and we are loaded by group onto one of the pair of M2 helicopters for a sight-seeing flight over the near by Store glacier.
We pass very low over its fissured and jagged surface marked with pools of azure melt water.
Back on board, the Kapitan Khlebnikov turns west towards Baffin Bay. As she threads her way between magnificent icebergs and thumps against the occasional floe, we attend a champagne party on the foredeck where we are addressed by Cheli the Expedition leader and officially welcomed by Captain Vladimir Boldakov.
August 27th Saturday. At Sea. Baffin Bay
This is a day spent at sea as we make our way north up the Baffin Bay to Cape York.
While we cover the 400 nm, we attend a series of lectures on the cryosphere (the world of ice) and the birds who make this area their home or come here to breed. We are also addressed by Chris Hadfield who was commander of the International Space Station. To learn some of what he has to say, watch You Tube ‘Chris Hadfield “Spaceship v Icebreaker”’. https://youtu.be/FOE0ZgUiVpk.
We also attend a lecture by historian Bob Headland from the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, England.
August 28th Sunday. Parker Snow Bay
I awake to a foggy morning which prevents us from landing at - or even seeing - Cape York. We continue on to Parker Snow Bay where we go ashore by Zodiac and are offered a choice of three hikes – long, medium and contemplative. As usual I choose the latter which, for me, is a good choice but still relatively hard walking on loose stones or boggy muskeg. A weathered hut on the beach remains the sole memento of a long departed expedition. The rocks are decorated with colourful lichens. Overhead a skein of geese fly in line astern , their mournful cries penetrating the silence.
After lunch, the ship relocates a few miles and we go for helicopter tour over the nearby glacier. We fly along and very close to its fissured face. We put down on a rocky ledge and face a hazardous hike over loose rocks to the edge of the glacier.
August 29th Monday. Qaanaaq
Clocks go back one hour and we anchor off the small town of Qaanaaq (pronounced Kanak) and previously named Thule (pronounced tooley). I am up early in time to catch a wonderful dawn light on the many icebergs before they become shrouded in fog. As usual there is no jetty and we go ashore in Zodiacs for a wet landing. We walk up the unpaved main street to the museum where the Inuit guide describes the techniques used to hunt narwhals from kayaks. Stealth is the key. Special paddles with narrow blades are used to reduce splash. Talking is kept to a minimum and then only in whispers. Approach has to be from a direction from which no shadows are cast on the water ahead of the kayaks. A traditional hand-thrown harpoon is used to attack the narwhal. It is attached to a bladder fashioned from seal skin which helps to tire the wounded animal when it dives. We learn that the amount of ice is greatly reduced which makes hunting increasingly difficult.
We walk out of town to the cemetery where the graves are decorated with artificial flowers as there are none of the genuine article. We pass many sled dogs pegged to their kennels along the way.
Plans for a helicopter flight in the afternoon are called off due to decreasing visibility and strong winds aloft.
An afternoon lecture by Mark Maftei about bird research involving Sabine Gulls off the west coast of Vancouver Island raises the possibility of using Venture to aid in this research in the future.
This evening we leave Greenland and cross upper Baffin Bay to enter Canadian waters. This will be the subject of the next blog.